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Editor’s note: If you didn’t notice already, Peter is looking to share some talks and workshops in Sydney. It certainly looks like he knows his stuff. Anyone interested should head here to learn more.

Embracing a sustainable way of life involves changing how we provide ourselves with food and shelter.

by Peter Cowman

Permaculture has been phenomenally successful at providing a practical, workable and accessible system of natural food production. By comparison the natural building movement has been much less successful at disseminating practical information about the creation of buildings to support a sustainable way of life.

In traditional societies people provided for their own needs in regards to food and shelter. The industrial revolution changed this pattern. People abandoned this so-called ‘subsistence’ way of life in favour of a job culture and an urban existence. Instead of spending time building one’s own home and producing one’s own food, people converted their time into money by working and used this money to provide for their needs on the open market. The commodification of food and shelter that resulted from this has now led to a situation where the quality of much of what is eaten is suspect and the homes provided by the market are overly expensive and of dubious quality.

These fundamental changes in traditional survival mechanisms not only heralded a change in the quality of the food and shelter available to people, it also marked a departure from the myths, rituals and traditions that were part and parcel of such survival activities and assisted people in orienting themselves within the natural world.

While domestic-scale food production did not entirely cease as a result of this new way of life, the practice of building one’s own home did. Because such vernacular architecture traditions were oral, and perpetuated by practical example, when this activity ceased vital sheltermaking knowledged was lost. As a result responsibility for sheltermaking activity passed from people to a new building ‘industry’. In other words, vernacular architecture was superceded by profit driven ‘development’ controlled by self-interested third parties. This led to people having to borrow in order to shelter themselves. The practice of borrowing money to acquire a place to live — mortgaging — plays a vital role in industrialised, or, market economies.

Making Money

In order to function market economies rely on the constant injection of fresh capital. A substantial portion of such funds derive from people making repayments on the mortgages they have committed to in order to acquire a place to live. In addition to such commitments people are also expected to maintain high levels of expenditure in their day-to-day lives in order to sustain growth in the wider economy.

Market economies use the repayment commitments made by mortgagees, the notional values of the properties attached to them and projections of consumer spending as the basis of new loans, securities and other financial ‘instruments’. The elaborate paper structure which results is supported by the commitments made by mortgagees and by people spending money to acquire the basics of life on the open market – because they are too busy working to provide these for themselves.

When this system falters – as it has done recently – the vast paper structure that is the world economy begins to collapse. This results in a decline in property values, a loss of consumer confidence, negative growth and the devaluation of the financial instruments constructed on the strength of mortgage debt repayment commitments.
In order to maintain continuous growth economies rely not only on the creation of debt but also on the use of machines to optimism work activity and to maximise productivity. Machines, in order to function, rely on external energy inputs derived from fossil fuels. The environmental degradation consequent to this has inspired moves towards a sustainable way of life – a goal now given added impetus by the instability of the economic system.

Because money is a human construct when it is said to ‘grow’ such growth is unlike the growth seen in nature. The growth of money is reliant on new money being created all the time. This is unlike natural growth which is fuelled by solar energy. Money growth is derived from people converting their time into money through paid employment and by creating debts to provide themselves with a place to live.

This is why the market system encourages full employment so that as many people as possible are working and producing new money. To ensure that people adhere to this scheme of things access to the shelter necessary to survival is made conditional on a person spending thirty or forty years in the workplace. This practice of ‘mortgaging’ is the basis of all developed economies and relies on the exploitation of people’s need for shelter.

The economic meltdown of 2008, triggered by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, has now proven beyond doubt that mortgage debt plays a vital role in fuelling economic growth and perpetuates the endless cycle of exploitation and destruction that bedevils the world. This clarity has added urgency to the need for people to reconnect with vernacular architecture traditions. Such a revival has the potential to offer people an alternative way of sheltering themselves by means other than the current mortgage system. If such alternatives include facilities for food production and home working aspirations to live sustainably would have a much greater chance of success.

Sustainable House Design

While there are many books available detailing aspects of sustainable building, instruction on how to utilise this wealth of information is scant. The vernacular tradition was passed down orally and designs evolved over long periods of time. When this tradition ceased so too did the knowledge of how to nurture designs from conception into built reality.

It is important to bear in mind that no dedicated school of house design exists and that there is no body of experts directing this process. Sheltermaking was never a part of the architectural profession but was always something that people themselves controlled.

It is also important to understand that Planning Laws are there to restrict peoples’ ability to construct their own homes. Such laws ensure the hegemony of conventional housing and its attendant mortgage finance. It is this system which most securely binds people to the very system they wish to change. This is the roller coaster that never stops, the merry-go-round which carries things forward towards ever more destructiveness.

The advent of planning laws in the mid-twentieth century effectively sealed the fate of the vernacular architecture tradition by requiring that people adhere to new norms that had more to do with the growth of national economies that with the quality of houses themselves.

Sustainable Living

Desires to live sustainably are based on the understanding that we are part of nature – an intricate and finely balanced living system which we must harmonise with on all levels if we are to survive and thrive. Producing healthy and nutritious food and creating secure and nurturing shelter form a vital part of all schemes intended to allow us reach this objective.

How to achieve this on a practical level is a challenge, particularly if the use of fossil fuels are to be reduced and debt levels moderated. None of these goals are consistent with government commitments to sustaining economic growth – placing the true adherent of sustainability in direct conflict with the system.
While shelters’ role in providing protection from the elements is well understood, its nurturing role is less obvious. Just as in permaculture, where a sensitivity to nature promotes growth and development, so too does a sensitivity to nature positively impact on the quality of the shelters we construct for our survival. Such sensitivity also nurtures our physical and emotional well-being.

Physically, buildings consist of walls, floors and roofs which enclose space. This space is not actually created but merely hived off from the pre-existing space that surrounds us – space that existed before the building was made and space which continues to exist after the building has disappeared. This mysterious quality of architecture is often overlooked – largely because space is invisible and is therefore impossible to see. As a result undue emphasis is normally placed on the parts of buildings that are readily visible – the building body or fabric. This way of looking at buildings is so common that people believe that this is what architecture is.

If undue emphasis is placed on the physical aspects of shelter the invisible qualities of the space enclosed are easily overlooked. This is akin to ignoring peoples emotions when relating to them. Such an approach to people, to buildings or to life in general, denies the reality of any intangible, or hidden, dimensions that exist beyond the physical realm.

Where industrialisation encouraged people to surrender their time in exchange for a wage it also demanded that people surrender their space. This precipitated the disconnection from the intangible qualities of life that characterises modern housing. The result of this is to consign people to a uni-dimensional world where physical reality is everything – a rational world where the value of property is calculated according to monetary worth rather than in terms of how it nurtures the growth and development of its occupants.

In permaculture, intangibles are an integral and accepted part of the process of harmonisation with nature. The effects of such sensitivity yield immense benefits at all levels – food that tastes good, systems that acknowledge natural cycles, people who feel deeply connected to life. Modern sheltermaking, by comparison, offers very little opportunity for such deep connection.

The activities associated with permaculture, because they involve living systems, get us in touch with nature and expose us in an active way to its processes, likes, dislikes, preferences and possibilities. As a result it becomes readily apparent that our wellbeing thrives on the harmonies facilitated by such engagement. This is as valuable a gain as the produce itself because it nurtures our aliveness. Where we are open to such engagement we can enjoy the feeling of being connected to life in a deep and meaningful way.

Traditional sheltermaking, through its association with food production, by virtue of the materials it used and the handcrafted nature of their assembly, intimately connected people to natural processes and cycles. As a result, the home acted as a reference point that allowed for the orientation of the individual within the natural world allowing them to acknowledge the intangible qualities of life. It is these emotional engagements which gives meaning to our lives and allow us discover who we are and our purpose in life – the essence of the sustainability life to which we aspire.

Houses & People

Houses are made up of two essential parts. The first of these is the outside or the building fabric comprising walls, floor and roof. The second part is the inside space which is enclosed by this building fabric. This is the most important part of any home because it is where life is lived.

The fact that houses are made up of two essential parts – an outside and an inside – makes buildings very much like people. People have physical bodies and an interior world made up of their imaginations, dreams, unconscious and so on. It is this inside part of people which most closely represents who they really are.

The same is true of houses. The life to be lived within them is the most important consideration when embarking on the design and construction process. It is this focus which brings a building to life. Such ‘living’ architecture strives to balance inner and outer considerations just as we strive to balance our physical needs with those of our inner selves.

Because sustainable living shares a similar goal – harmonisation with the physical world and with the inner mysteries of life – the creation of an architecture to support this is essential if we hope to change how we live on the planet.


Architecture encompasses all of the dimensions of the world as we know it: the 3 dimensions of space — length, breath and height — plus that most mysterious of dimensions, time. Such ‘spacetime’ encompasses the physical world and the invisible realm from which life itself is derived.

Science tells us that space and time are conjoined within an infinite 4 dimensional universe. Speculation as to the nature of space-time has formed the basis of myth, religious belief and philosophic discourse throughout history.

When we create shelter by placing boundaries around space we hive off a portion of this invisible and mysterious space-time which we then inhabit. The potential this offers in regards to connecting to life in a deep and meaningful way is immense.

The modern world devalues the invisible realm of life and along with it the instincts which allow us to interpret it. Because architecture allows us to engage us these 4 dimensions it is an invaluable tool in the quest to engage with life as it really is and to live our lives fully in that consciousness. The appeal of the vernacular architectural tradition is very much derived from such engagement.

Generally, architecture is presented as being complex when, in fact, it can be very simple – literally four walls and a roof. It is life which is complicated and full of hidden meaning. When we accept this fact, and the nature of this invisibility, we can begin to distinguish between the visible and invisible aspects of buildings. This allows us to interpret the abstract nature of inner space as a reflection of our own ‘invisible’, or, inner selves.

When people re-engage with the vernacular architecture tradition they enter a new world where all of the dimensions of life can be experienced to the full and real and meaningful change can be initiated. By regaining control of the sheltermaking process people can regain control not only of their time and space but also of their lives.

The process of creating vernacular designs appropriate to a sustainable life begins by acknowledging the intangibles that are so critical to the process of harmonisation with nature. These are invisible and mysterious, residing within our deep emotional selves. When we articulate our desires about how we wish to live it stimulates the parts of ourselves that long for a deeper connection to nature. This signals the beginning of a painful but necessary evaluation of our values, beliefs, ideals, aspirations and dreams.

Understanding the puzzle of our selves and of modern life is an integral part of repossessing the sheltermaking process – identifying who we are, where we are going and how we plan to get there. Formerly one simply donned the regalia of tradition but in the here and now, given the destructiveness of the modern world, fresh, imaginative and cost-effective solutions are required.

The house is central to realising one’s ambitions to live sustainably and the creation of an appropriate design is vital to the success of this. This will emerge from one’s own ‘identity’ – the life one has to live. It is the process of merging such ‘inner’ qualities with those of the ‘outer’ world which forms the ‘living’ architecture. This contributes to and compliments a ‘sustainable’ culture founded on the bedrock of a deep commitment to life itself.

It is critical that we acknowledge the vital role which shelter plays in meeting our emotional needs if we are to achieve true sustainability. Such a perspective invites us to reclaim our time and our space, to alter our consciousness and our entire way of life.

The dynamics of such a consciousness shift are as much cultural as they are personal allowing us to embark on a process of renewal. This forging of a new cultural paradigm must acknowledge the unknown and intangible qualities of life. Such a re-attunement to nature allows us to connect to the mystery of the universe and the wonder of our individual lives. From here we can begin to recapture the sheltermaking imperative, re-occupying our time and our space, reforming our homes and our selves.


Peter Cowman is an Irish architect, natural builder, teacher, writer and the director of the Living Architecture Centre. He began teaching people how to design their own homes in 1989. He has a special interest in on mortgage-free self-building. He lives in central Victoria and teaches and lectures internationally. Peter will be in Sydney from Thursday 25th to Sunday 28th August 2011, and is keen to deliver illustrated Talks & Workshops in conjunction with interested groups. He can be contacted via his website or by phoning 03 9005 5833.


  1. Peter,

    Very interesting and very impressive. Looks like a more practical and economical structure than traditional strawbale.

    I am interested in incorporating an above ground wet composting wormfarm septic tank system tank just out side so elevated toilet, shower and washing machines high in the building could drain into the top and then gravity drain out into a semi-circular parallel plastic arching mounded garden beds used to form a shade tunnel.

    I am also trying to devise what I call a “Garden Appreciation Platform” or “Micro Climate Chaser” that would be stored in the base of the EconoSpace structure at night, during storms or when not at home because it would be entirely geared to being a moveable passive solar component of the building but would not be water proof, security proof or strong wind proof. This would enable even better use of your econospace by having part of it that can be used to go out and track the sun or avoid the sun in the shade tunnel. The most basic models might be not much larger than a wheel barrow or other outdoor furniture but are really only limited by the space you have to store them. Econospace looks very efficient having no concrete slab. Certainly looks like a very smart and flexible design idea that would integrate well with a moveable part that travels out though the garden. If the fixed building is pretty much only used at night for sleeping, showering, and food preparation then the need for large windows and heating would be even further reduced. The one major window on the face of the moving part of the building would be double glazed. I reckon there are ways we could make it even more economical, have space in it we can move out into the garden and refine the concepts even more. Brilliant work, articles and video.

  2. Peter,

    Nice work, I particularly liked the bit where you pointed out that planning controls are there to stop you building a house rather than providing a set of guidelines. It and building controls are the two tools that hand the whole process over to the vested interests in the building industry and they exercise control for their own ends.

    The majority of houses being built these days are rubbish. From the way that materials are employed, to the siting, it’s just a terrible waste of time.

    The other thing that’s worth mentioning, is that if you don’t build the house yourself, you’ll likely build a house that’s too big for your real world requirements. I reckon this is some sort of compensation mentality for all of the work you are required to do to pay off that mortgage.

    This is a subject that I’m quite passionate about having built my own house by hand and having to fight planners and surveyors all the way because the house has strong elements of sustainability over the current housing stock.

    The vested interests really do own the entire process. It’s scary.



  3. Meta Pattern:

    “Nature is a totally efficient, self-regenerating system. IF we discover the laws that govern this system and live synergistically within them, sustainability will follow and humankind will be a success.” – Buckminster Fuller


    “But, by contrast, in the early phases of industrial society which we have experienced recently, the pattern languages die.

    Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private. Roads are built by highway engineers; buildings by architects; parks by planners; hospitals by hospital consultants; schools by educational specialists; gardens by gardeners; tract housing by developers.

    The people of the town themselves know hardly any of the languages which these specialists use. And if they want to find out what these languages contain, they can’t, because it is considered professional expertise. The professionals guard their language jealously to make themselves indispensable.

    Even within any profession, professional jealousy keeps people from sharing their pattern languages. Architects, like shefs, jealously guard their recipes, so that they can maintain unique style to sell.

    The languages start out to being specialized and hidden from the people; and then within the specialties, the languages become more private still, and hidden from another, and fragmented.”

    – Christopher Alexander, from The Timeless Way of Building, page 231-232.

    This is a very important article! I think you should also give it to Energy Bulletin, so that more people can read it:

    I’m also happy to tell that the Salingaros Group now wants to establish in Norway:

  4. As the Tao Te Ching say (as Translated by Stephen Mitchell)…

    We join spokes together in a wheel,
    but it is the center hole
    that makes the wagon move.

    We shape clay into a pot,
    but it is the emptiness inside
    that holds whatever we want.

    We hammer wood for a house,
    but it is the inner space
    that makes it livable.

    We work with being,
    but non-being is what we use.

  5. Thank you….very interesting…and I agree…the problem I have is with land ownership….land ownership is at the root of so many problems. Carving up the land…this is mine, this is yours.. how do we get around that.

  6. Hi Everyone
    Thanks for those positive comments.
    Yes, Matti, land is actually a bigger issue than design and construction put together.
    How to get round this – stealth, wits, nerves of steel?
    Funnily enough the real threat (if you just go ahead and build yourself a mortgage-free sustainable shelter without a permit) is from your neighbours who get on to the council and complain – because you and your shack constitute a threat to their property values!
    How to get round this?
    Interesting one.
    Happy to talk about this type of thing when I come to Sydney in August.
    So far no offers to help organise that.
    So, if you’re inclined let me know!
    What’s involved?
    Networking the event; finding a venue; putting up flyers …
    It’ll be fun!
    Waiting to hear from you!

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